More than sport at stake

The world is about to stop for a whole month. That’s when the 18th soccer World Cup is to be held in Germany. The opening game takes place at the Allianz Arena in Munich on June 9, and the final will be played in the Olympiastadion in Berlin on 9 July before 66,000 spectators. Ten other German cities will host games.

The new stadium in Munich, which resembles a Firestone or Goodrich tyre lying flat on the ground, was built recently to replace the Olympic Stadium, which will forever be associated with the killings of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The Olympiastadion in Berlin is the same stadium in which Hitler presided over the 1936 Olympic Games, but it has been largely renovated for this tournament.

The combined television audience for the duration of the tournament will number in the billions, while 3 million lucky people have tickets and will attend in person. Demand was so great that the organisers could easily have sold 30 million tickets. The Federation Internationale de Football Associations, or FIFA, made $A1.53 billion from the previous World Cup, which was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. It was the first time the event had been held in Asia. FIFA expects to make even more money this time, so its budget for the next four years is looking good.

And what, might you say, has all this got to do with America, the home of football (American style), baseball, basketball and ice hockey? A great deal, actually. America is the world’s mightiest military power. But, it is also a world soccer power, and most of the world would appreciate that aspect more than the military one.

Soccer can be one of the most powerful diplomatic tools a nation can have. The US has this tool at its disposal, but it is largely overlooked by politicians and diplomats. It is a tool that could be utilised to ease tensions in the world and enhance the standing of the US as a world power intent on peace. Dropping soccer balls is preferable to dropping bombs. The US is one of the most generous nations in the world. Building soccer grounds and donating soccer equipment to developing nations, as well as supplying the usual food, medicine and peacekeepers makes a lot of sense in a world besotted with the game.

The United States has qualified for the World Cup finals for the eighth time, which is an impressive record and one which not many countries can match. The feat is even more notable when one realises that FIFA has 205 members, making it the organisation which represents the most countries. The United Nations has only 191 members and the Olympic Federation 202. The soccer World Cup is bigger than the Olympic Games, in fact, and draws a larger television audience. Soccer, or football as it is known in most of the world, is also an Olympic event and regularly attracts the greatest number of spectators at the Olympic Games -- including the year when the Olympics were held in Los Angeles.

Let’s put the US’s latest qualification in some sort of perspective. To become one of the 32 finalists competing in Germany, the US was one of 194 countries which participated in 847 qualifying matches and which yielded roughly 2,500 goals. The US is, in fact, placed 5th in FIFA’s world rankings, which is a credit to the nation’s soccer players and, indeed, to the nation as a whole. To be a good footballing country raises a nation’s prestige in the eyes of most of the world, and that is something the United States can do with at the present time.

The coach of the American team, Bruce Arena, is the longest serving national coach at this World Cup. He has been in charge of the team for eight years.

The American team is also known for one of the great giant-killing acts in World Cup history. It caused a huge upset at the 1950 tournament in Brazil when it beat England, the founder of the modern game of football, 1-0. Joe Gaetjens was the goalscorer. He would have been a hero in any other country, but his feat went largely unnoticed back home.

The United States has hosted the World Cup once -- in 1994. The all-time attendance record for a World Cup was set at that tournament, with 3,567,415 spectators at the 52 matches, making an average of 68,604 a game. No World Cup in the history of the tournament, which spans 1930 to 2006, has come anywhere near those figures. There are 3.2 million youth players between the ages of 5 and 19 in the US, and over 900,000 administrators, coaches and volunteers involved in youth soccer. This represents a huge groundswell of support for, and interest in, the game. It has spawned the phenomenon of the “Soccer Mom”, who takes her sons and daughters to and from training and to games each week during the soccer season.

Women’s soccer is huge in the US and the country has won the Women’s World Cup, something the men have yet to emulate. It is true that the soccer success story has not been reflected at the senior men’s levels within the US. The Major Soccer League (MLS) is but the latest in a series of national competitions which have invariably failed. MLS attendances average only 15,000 per game. The halcyon days for men’s senior soccer were in the 1970s when such world stars as Pele, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and Rodney Marsh played in the US for teams such as the New York Cosmos and the Los Angeles Aztecs.

But the situation must surely improve at this top level, too, now that the US has qualified yet again for the world’s major sporting event. There are positive signs that the tide is turning. There are now two television channels which broadcast soccer exclusively, and all 64 games at this World Cup will be broadcast live in the US. The opportunity is ripe, therefore, for the game to finally establish itself as a credible sport in America, and for politicians to start using it for the good of the nation and the world.

Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State during the Nixon presidency, was and still is a passionate soccer fan. I would not be surprised if he is at the World Cup Final on 9 July. He has been at finals before.

Hark back to April 1971 and the phenomenon that was labelled ‘ping pong diplomacy’. An American table tennis team competing in a tournament in Japan received a sudden and unexpected invitation to travel to China and play there. Some media were also invited to accompany the team. This visit soon led to Kissinger visiting China and laying the groundwork for the visit the following year of Nixon himself. It led to a thaw in the relationship between China and the US. It was the toe in the door, and the rest is now history.

The US is currently at loggerheads with Iran and North Korea, to name just two countries. This provides the US with the perfect opportunity to engage, not in “ping pong diplomacy”, but in “soccer (or football) diplomacy”. Iran and North Korea are both fervent soccer-loving countries, so what better way is there to engage these two nations in dialogue than through soccer? There is a common saying that soccer (or football for most of the world) is a universal language. Players may not speak each other’s language, but they can play quite readily on the same team, or on opposing teams, and understand each other completely. The game can, and has, bridged barriers of race, religion and creed.

It is true that soccer has led to wars, and to racial and civil conflict. In 1969, El Salvador and Honduras went to war because World Cup qualification matches between the two countries for the right to go to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico erupted in violence. Racism has reared its ugly head at soccer grounds in Italy and Spain. But soccer has often also been a catalyst for peace. The latest example is Angola, where a civil war has been raging for 27 years. Angola has qualified for the World Cup for the first time in its history and rival factions are laying down their arms as the tournament approaches. The whole nation will be watching as one as their team competes.

Most of the world’s best club sides are from Europe, but their players come from many different countries. They play in harmony and get on well off the field, too. The players are heroes in their own countries as well as the world and they often engage in charitable works in their home countries, sometimes under the auspices of FIFA.

Condoleeza Rice with Blackburn Rovers shirt. AFP/BBCThe current US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, was photographed in March this year wearing a Blackburn Rovers shirt during a visit to the city of Blackburn in the UK, the home town of British Foreign Minister, Jack Straw. Rice was, in a way, initiated into the culture of soccer. Rice could perhaps go further than that ardent soccer fan, Henry Kissinger, did in 1971. She is looking for ways to engage Iran and North Korea in dialogue and to relieve the tensions that exist between these two countries and the US (as well as many other countries). Why not use soccer as a diplomatic tool to achieve this outcome?

Iran and the US met in the 1998 World Cup in France. It was not the bloodbath on the field that some pessimists predicted. Iran won 2-1 and it was a fair sporting contest in which both sets of players respected each other. The dignity of both countries was preserved. Iran will be present again at this World Cup in Germany, although it is drawn in a different group to the US. But they are both participating in the same tournament and are, therefore, brothers in sport.

North Korea, best known for its 1966 World Cup performance in England, when it beat the highly fancied Italy 1-0, did not qualify this time. But soccer is a national obsession and still a source of great pride.

The US could begin its “soccer diplomacy” by inviting youth teams from Iran and North Korea to compete in one of the many junior tournaments held throughout the United States at different times of the year. It might be necessary for the US hosts to pay all costs, particularly in the case of North Korean teams, but the potential benefits would be worth it. The youth of those countries might develop a different outlook towards the US, and one that is not promoted by their governments. Government funding for such participation would be money well spent. This would lay the groundwork for subsequent invitations to senior club sides from these countries, and eventually, to the national sides.

The US has, in the past, hosted senior tournaments involving two or three other countries, on its own soil, so why not a tournament involving the US, Iran and North Korea?

Despite indifference towards soccer at senior political level and in the media -- this is despite presidents, including Bill Clinton, taking photo opportunities with world soccer stars such as Pele -- the US can count itself as a world power in soccer, regardless of how it performs at this World Cup. It clearly has the pedigree. It would be an appropriate and effective strategy, therefore, to see Condoleeza Rice use “soccer diplomacy” to entice Iran and North Korea back into the international fold. The lure of soccer can be irresistible to the masses.

The soccer ball is clearly at the feet of the United States. It is up to them to play  it. The official slogan for the 2006 World Cup in Germany is, after
all, "A time to make friends".

Walter Pless is soccer writer for the Hobart Mercury, in Australia.


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